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Michael Jacks, Racism and the Music Cartel

by Dave Marsh

More than one person who’s worked with Michael Jackson has predicted to me that, if he realizes he’ll never again be the world’s most popular entertainer, he’ll commit suicide. Nobody predicted that the suicide would be so public, though.

There’s zero credibility to Jackson’s complaint that a Sony Music conspiracy produced all his woes–from the child molesting charges to royalty injustices. Yet Jackson’s ugly stunts and ludicrous fantasies are important, because they poison the story just as the public finally begins understanding the music world’s plantation economics.

Michael contends that in order to effectively fight the undeniable oppression of all black recording artists, all the other black musicmakers need to fall in line with him. Yet he didn’t make this public demand of the caucasians he actually hangs with–Elizabeth Taylor, McCauley Culkin, or ‘N Sync-even though that’s the more powerful group.

In his essay on “racial solidarity in the guise of black nationalism,” South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Kevin Gray describes a pattern by which bourgeois African-Americans, who ordinarily despise the so-called “black underclass,” demand solidarity when their interests are threatened. Need I point out that Mchael Jackson turned his back on Gary, Indiana, his majority-black hometown, when deindustrialization devastated it, or that he has never even whispered support of black rappers from Tupac on down when they’ve been censored, arrested, even murdered?

The dialogue about the music cartel’s scandalous economics ought to stay focused on the truth, which is one class of people, all relatively poor, being oppressed by another, far richer class. Just as the cotton industry cheated white sharecroppers as systematically and thoroughly as black sharecroppers, white artists and black artists have been identically cheated by the music industry. You can’t make sense of label chicanery using a racial framework, because the basis of the thievery is class. A label charges a veteran artist’s royalty account $10,000 for “A&R” every time one of his masters is used in a TV show or a movie. The artist is white. EMI pays Mariah Carey more than $50 million for making one flop album and agreeing not to make any others. Carey is black.

We need to think hard and often about the role race plays in all of American life. This dilemma-which is not just America’s but the world’s–cannot be solved without acknowledging that not only was our prosperity and power founded on slavery and peonage, our culture and politics remain based on white supremacy. White supremacy, which is what generates racism, infects every white person reading this-including me and if he’s out there, Tommy Mottola. In that sense, calling us “racist” lets us off the hook, because if we don’t burn crosses while wearing robes and hoods, we feel exempt. It’s only when we confront the unspoken everyday uses of white skin privilege that we get close to the real race problem.

It’s sad that Michael Jackson, who has been black for 44 years, doesn’t get this. He obviously doesn’t, because if he did, he’d never have labeled Tommy Mottola, who is far from a Klansman, a racist. At least in America, his white audience isn’t likely to forget this, or forgive it.

Yet Jackson, who obsesses over his own history, can find the real story written right there. When his first record contract came to an end, Jackson and his family lost the rights to his master recordings and even to the Jackson 5 name. His old label sued and the settlement cost the group more than half a million bucks, most of it in waived royalties, back when half a million meant something to a superstar.

The old record label was Motown, which was owned by black people and run by a black man.

That doesn’t mean that Michael Jackson didn’t get ripped off. In fact, Motown only paid a 5% royalty to the Jackson 5, so you could say it ripped him off ten times as much. Is Berry Gordy a racist in Michael Jackon’s eyes?


(what’s playing in my office)

1. “The Rising” (track), Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

2. Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, Nappy Roots (Atlantic)

3. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)

4. Dreamland, Robert Plant (Universal)

5. Little By Little, The Stevens Sisters (Rounder)

6. Halos and Horns, Dolly Parton (Sugar Hill)

7. Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious (MCA)

8. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

9. Another Happy Ending, The Clarks (Razor & Tie)

10. The Essential Collection, Tammi Terrell (Spectrum/UK)

11. Boy Could Those Guys Sing, The Delcos (Crystal Ball)

12. Living in a New World, Willie King and the Liberators (Rooster Blues)

13. Revolucion: The Chicano’s Spirit, a selection of Chicano grooves from the early 70s (Follow Me, Fr.)

14. The Shed Sessions, Bhundu Boys (Sadza, Ger.)

15. Dion and the Little Kings Live in New York (Ace UK)

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at:


Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: Dave blogs at

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